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Evolution of the Gnomon

January 7, 2010
Harriet Witt

If we want to keep food in our bellies, we must put that stick in the ground so we can observe how its shadow changes during the day and during the year. We observe how the changes are orderly, predictable, linked with the seasons and linked with the life cycles of all plants and animals. Yes, the cycles of life-on-earth are the rhythms of Earth and sky. But why?

Answering this takes us centuries, but it shows us how to plan. Planning equals survival when our food grows or migrates into our territory only at a certain time of year. And planning equals survival when the materials for our clothing and shelter grow or migrate into our territory only at a certain time of year. With planning we know when to aim our arrows at migrating birds or animals, when put our fishing nets into the water, and when to plant our seeds.

Our hunger to know why the rhythms of life on Earth are the cycles of Earth and sky rewards us with more than food. It develops our brains and it connects us with the cosmos. The more we connect with the cosmos, the more eager we are to understand the cosmic cycles in nature. So, we upgrade our shadow-sticks into sundials, obelisks, and eventually, into massive, sky-aligned structures like Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and Chaco Canyon.

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Harriet Witt

We also upgrade our observation skills by developing mathematics, astronomy, physics, geography and more. Eventually, we discover that the earth beneath our feet is transporting us through the heavens. She’s spinning us and orbiting us through space with a mathematical precision with which we set our clocks and calendars.

Our shadow-stick is our first clock, our first calendar and our first observatory. With our observatory, we can tell the date. With our observatory, we can observe holy days, holidays. In ancient Greece our shadow-stick is called a gnomon (“KNOW-mun”), meaning “indicator” or “one who discerns.” And gnomon becomes the root of our words, knowing, knowledge, cognition, recognize, diagnose, gnosis, connoisseur and cognoscente. Yes, our gnomon is the root of our knowing.

I’m hoping that as you use your new calendar, you enjoy remembering this: Every time you check your calendar to see what today’s date is, you’re finding out where we are in our 600-million-mile orbit around a golden star called the sun.



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